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Kosovo: AIDS Fears

Doctors believe prostitution may account for the growing number of HIV cases in the protectorate.
By Dren Berisha

A Ukrainian prostitute in Pristina went to her doctor last month complaining of a cold. It turned out she had AIDS - setting alarm bells ringing across Kosovo.


"She had had many contacts with Kosovar men," said Jusuf Dushaj, epidemiologist and the head of the National Institute for Public Health. "We are highly concerned."


The case is significant because doctors here have long suspected that the explosion in the number of prostitutes here since the 1999 conflict is responsible for the spread of HIV infection.


Health specialists have been unable to test prostitutes for the Aids virus because they have no authority to approach the illegal brothels they work for.


So far 43 people have been diagnosed with HIV in Kosovo - just over half of them have died. But the true scale of the problem could be much greater, according to Elviana Berani, spokesperson for the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, in the protectorate.


"Specialists say that for every person identified as HIV positive, there are at least 100 others who may have been infected," she said. "If we use this logic about 4,300 people could be infected in Kosovo. But, for the moment, there is no proof that such a formula applies here."


Identities of infected persons have been kept secret for fear of stirring up prejudice against their families. Prior to the prostitute being diagnosed last month, the only other victim named was a 13-year-old boy who caught AIDS from his parents, both of whom subsequently died.


Doctors say people in Kosovo don't like to say how they have contracted the virus - making it harder to cope with - but they strongly suspect that the infection is linked to the 140 bars and clubs where prostitutes operate.


Many of them are close to petrol stations where casual customers may stop off for a while and then quickly disappear. "We have closed down some 40 of these places in the past nine months but they soon reopen under another name," said Barry Fletcher, the UNMIK police spokesperson in Kosovo.


In addition to local men, international officials and western troops and law enforcement officers are believed to frequent the region's brothels. Not long ago, ten overseas policemen left Kosovo after being accused of using prostitutes.


The director general of the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, Brunson McKinley, said strenuous efforts should be made to address the problem. "I think, KFOR, UNMIK and the Kosovars themselves should do more to root it out," he said.


Also believed to be contributing to the rise in HIV infection is the fact that over the past few years Kosovars have travelled extensively abroad in search of work. "Some of them contracted the virus there," Berani said.


An International Day Against AIDS was held on December 1 when the Kosovo media sought to heighten public awareness of the dangers of unprotected sex. Their success was questionable. "Ask me about mines or automatic weapons and I can give all the answers," said Behar Ahmeti, a 20-year-old from Pristina. "But AIDS, I've only just started hearing about it."


His response is typical and illustrates the fact that despite efforts to draw attention to the problem, Kosovan society still does not recognise the serious risk posed by prostitution. "Nobody believes a brief sexual encounter can cost you your life," said Dedushaj.


Dren Berisha is the pseudonym of an independent journalist in Kosovo.


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